Photo © Bobbi Goodman/Illustration by Carolyn Wong

Designers, city planners, Facebook executives, and local residents brainstormed ways to connect the new Facebook campus with Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood in ways that would benefit everyone. The 174-person design charrette helped untangle a variety of issues related to economic development, an adjacent wetland, and lack of public transit.

Dear Menlo Park, you have a new notification. Facebook posted on your wall: We’re moving in! Isn’t there anything to do around here?

Thus the seed was planted for a large-scale design charrette aimed at finding ways to connect the new Facebook campus in an isolated industrial area of Menlo Park with the surrounding community—preferably in ways that would reduce the use of fossil fuels while benefiting both Facebook employees and city residents.

The new, 1 million-square-foot campus is really the old campus of Sun Microsystems, so its actual location is non-negotiable. But it’s more than a little ironic for a company that is all about making connections to surround itself on three sides by a high-speed expressway and an untouchable wetland, with no nearby retail and no public transit to speak of. Facebook doesn’t plan to stay socially isolated for long: it started networking with city planners almost immediately. During the charrette, organized by the local chapter of The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and involving the City of Menlo Park, Facebook, and interested citizens from nearby neighborhoods, four planning teams brainstormed ideas for building more infrastructure—ideas that could also stimulate the local economy and improve quality of life for folks already living in Menlo Park.

“The eleven buildings face inward, with a massive sea of parking around them,” says John Stewart, AIA, who co-chaired the charrette. The building renovations are already under way (Stewart is not involved with the interior renovations, but says they have a LEED Gold target), so this process only addressed the buildings’ exterior and surroundings. The overriding question, he says, is “How do you give security to Facebook and yet have openness to the community?” The teams worked on four related issues:

  • Interfacing with nature. How can outdoor areas integrate with the natural wetland area without disturbing it?
  • Dealing with transportation. Facebook hopes as few as 50 percent of its employees will have to drive to work. How can public transit be integrated, given the expressway and the wetland?
  • Communicating with the Belle Haven neighborhood. A pedestrian underpass connects the campus with the adjacent working class neighborhood, which is currently plagued by plummeting property values and foreclosures. Can Facebook help the neighborhood attract the sort of economic development that will allow current residents to stay, rather making their own neighborhood too expensive for them to live in?
  • Connecting with the neighborhood across the expressway. The most likely location for a train station would be across the high-speed expressway, but how will people cross the road, and what else might be there when they get to the other side?

“It was a mix of stuff that could be done tomorrow and stuff that could never happen,” says Stewart. Among his list of things that will probably never happen is an undulating, elevated pedestrian bridge encircling the entire area, with exits on and off to connect surrounding neighborhoods and the proposed train station with the campus. A lot of pictures of that “circle of friends” are going around, says Stewart. “It’s a crazy idea, but people have done it,” he adds.

While Stewart has seen several great Menlo Park planning ideas languish in obscurity in his two decades there, he has higher hopes for some of the concepts coming out of this particular charrette—mainly because of Facebook’s reputation for innovation and its financial resources. “There is a lot of potential for faster movement than normal,” he says. While a few of the concepts might be far-fetched, people are excited, and he views that as good: “It’s a spark that hopefully creates a wildfire.”